Matthew gospel chapter 12.
It’s been a terrible week for religion hasn’t it?! Here in the United Kingdom lots of us are hooked on a television dramatization of the Wolf Hall novels by Hilary Mantel about Tudor England when Thomas Cromwell was advising king Henry VIII. In those days we burnt alive those we called heretics: that is people who disagreed with us. Few people are more dangerous than those who think they know exactly what God wants and have the power to pursue their beliefs in God’s name. Of course ISIS is utterly unrepresentative of Islam today. Let’s be profoundly thankful for that. But they think they know what God wants and in God’s name they have burnt a man alive. In 16th century Tudor England religion and politics couldn’t be separated out. They burnt people alive because they were afraid of political upheaval if they allowed ‘heretical’ religious ideas to get a foothold. They could have taught ISIS a ghastly thing or two.
In chapter 12 of his gospel Matthew presents us with some stories about religious leaders who were sure they also knew what God wanted. Their certainty would lead rapidly to the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.
Look at verses 9 to 14 of chapter 12 – the story of a man with a withered hand. His condition was presumably seen as ‘just the way things are’. When Jesus appears in the synagogue the congregation gets nervous. Jesus already has a reputation for not accepting the way things are. What will he get up to here, today? What we are really nervous about, they must have been thinking, is the way he keeps breaking the rules that God has laid down.
In Mark’s version of this story Jesus asks the man to stand out. Jesus is asking him to take a personal risk, to take a step of faith, to use that part of his body that was not withered. So there they are, the two of them, Jesus and the man, standing there in full view of a crowd who are just waiting to see if Jesus will break the religious rules. They expect Jesus will and they are ready to pounce. They are so rule-bound they can’t see the love-in-action that knows when rules should be broken. They can’t deny the facts. People are being healed. But people who break the religious rules must be in the service of Satan mustn’t they? They can’t be one of us can they? Being rule bound can lead to cynicism and denial about love-in-action as we see in verses 22 to 30 of this chapter.
In his book, ‘The Crucified Is No Stranger’, Sebastian Moore says “We will murder to protect our mediocrity” – the mediocrity of keeping religious rules in the name of God, of accepting the way things are. Jesus is more concerned with the sheep that has fallen into a pit (verse 11). The needs of the sheep, or the man with the withered hand, overrule the religious demand to keep the Sabbath. Love overrules mediocrity; in this case the mediocrity of law-keeping. “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (verse 12) Sebastian Moore suggests there is an innocent child within each of us and we are afraid of our vulnerability. If we gave the child in us any chance who knows what might happen? Everything might go to pot. Us adults need order and stability. We cannot allow the reign of love to have any part in our safely ordered society. So, out of fear of that vulnerable part of us, Sebastian Moore suggests we will sometimes murder and lie, even crucify, just as Jesus was crucified, to protect our defences and preserve our mediocrity.
A truly religious community (no matter what its rules and beliefs) will be one in which people are being healed (in the broadest sense of that word) in ways that challenge the accepted limits of what is reasonable and what is ‘natural’. Such healing will cause wonder and sometimes persecution.